How did this happen?
In our tens of thousands, we canvassed. We got out the vote. We researched, debated, explained, listened. But despite this colossal wave of support, Labour had the worst result since 1935. How could this be?
This kind of question isn’t new to the left but is one of the most debated of the last century. As an academic in Political Science, and an having just co-written a book on revolution and social change, the ideas I teach and think about in my daily work are very useful for understanding what happened in this election.
First of all there’s the media bias. Unlike what liberals would have us believe, a competitive market of profit-driven newspapers, TV stations and social media platforms doesn’t lead to a ‘free market’ of ideas. Instead we have a media landscape owned and controlled by billionaires whose main mission is to secure and increase their own wealth. (In political theory this is usually termed the ‘third dimension of power’, theorised by Steven Lukes; building on Gramsci’s famous ideas of cultural hegemony and false consciousness.)
In Britain only two papers – the Sun and Daily Mail – account for over half of all newspapers sold every day. Three media conglomerates (News UK, DMG Media and Reach Plc) account for over four-fifths of the newspaper market. Hence the overwhelming negative bias against Corbyn in the press, as evidenced in this study by researchers at Loughborough University.
British TV station ownership is just as billionaire-owned as the press – and you already know about Facebook thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The impact of the disinformation spread by these media channels became very clear when I was out canvassing and people on the doorstep complained that – for example – Labour was going to introduce a ‘garden tax’ charged by the square metre size of your garden (I have no idea where that one came from) or that the photo of the boy with suspected pneumonia left on the hospital floor was staged by Labour activists (a story printed by Metro among others).
When it comes to the BBC, it’s of course owned by the state and not by billionaires. The fact that the state provides free health services, welfare payments and policing makes it look like the state is a charitable organisation standing up for justice, when in fact it was created to serve the interests of the elite, which has become painfully clear since Corbyn became leader. The BBC has been instrumental in propagating the smear that Labour is an antisemitic party (rather than an antiracist party in an antisemitic society as it really is). The political editor of BBC news, Laura Kuenssberg, has repeatedly acted as an uncritical mouthpiece for the Conservatives. For example she spread a completely fabricated story about a Labour supporter punching a Conservative aide in the face without checking the facts first, and announced on the day before election day that ‘the postal votes that are in are looking pretty grim for Labour’, which is in breach of electoral law. Other examples are far too many to list here.
The BBC isn’t the only state-owned institution to be biased against Corbyn – perhaps you remember that a senior serving general of the British army stated back in 2015 that the British Army could stage a military coup if Corbyn became prime minister. Earlier this year it emerged that British soldiers were using a picture of Corbyn’s face as targets in their shooting range.
This state bias against a self-declared socialist is not surprising when we think for a moment about what kind of institution the state is. The state is generally defined in the political science literature as the group that ‘successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’, as defined by Max Weber. Inherently a violent organisation, the state structurally advantages elites over the general population. It forbids the hungry from stealing food from corporations but doesn’t forbid corporations from stealing wealth from its workers; it protects corporate profits but doesn’t protect our environment from those corporations’ CO2 emissions; it deems ‘healthy’ those people who are able to work and be exploited by corporations, but doesn’t deem ‘unhealthy’ those stressful and monotonous working conditions that drive people to the edge.
Radical leftist thought has long told us that the state can only generate inequality. If the state were intended to facilitate an equal and humane society, then why is it so big that tens of millions of people are lumped into the same political unit, making each individual person’s share in decision-making miniscule? Why is violence or the threat of violence the main mechanism of government? Why is the decision-making system set up so that decisions made by a small elite? The state by its very design favours hierarchy and oppression.
The state and socialism are therefore necessarily in opposition. Although many Marxists have sought to seize control of the state, this has only ever been as a temporary measure. As Engels put it: ‘As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection […] nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a state, is no longer necessary.’ As we have seen in the past year, it doesn’t matter how skilled a politician you are, or how much popular support you have – socialism is a difficult sell to people whose careers are spent serving the repressive arm of the bourgeoisie.
I won’t even go into the more technical aspects of the electoral system that rig it against the left, like gerrymandering, because that would assume that representative democracy is an inherently fair or well-functioning model, which it isn’t. Representative democracy, as any Politics undergraduate will know, was developed by elitists like John Stuart Mill and Joseph Schumpeter who openly wanted to limit the influence of the general public. Since directly participatory forms of democracy would give the general population too much power, they argued, it would be best to use a representative system where MPs make decisions on the general public’s behalf. That way elites could be in charge, while at the same time it would look like the masses had a say. This, by the way, is not some tin foil hat conspiracy theory, it’s openly argued in those literatures.
In rejecting representative democracy I’m not saying that isolated forms of direct participation, like referendums, by themselves would improve the situation. The Brexit referendum is ample evidence of that. The problem is that we lack the broader social and formal arrangements that encourage people to get actively involved and that make involvement meaningful. While an isolated referendum won’t develop most voters into well-informed and engaged political decision-makers, an education system that teaches critical thinking, creativity and initiative-taking probably would. As would a lifetime of experience if participatory decision-making was to become a regular event. In order to build a society of capable decision-makers, in other words, we must develop recurring participatory decision-making practices, which the nation-state couldn’t provide, but which workers’ co-ops, housing co-ops, community interest companies, participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies could.
The Brexit referendum, as a rare occurrence of direct public participation, shows us how reliant British people today are on information provided by political elites. That NHS cuts were necessary because of the £350 million a week the UK allegedly sends to the EU; or that Eastern European immigration has led to lay-offs and wage decreases for British workers, were lies peddled by Nigel Farage, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, and were repeated to me on the doorstep while I was out canvassing. Scientifically verified information has little standing when it’s coming from the mouth of a Labour Party canvasser drowning in a sea of disinformation and verifiably misleading claims in Tory campaign adverts.
In today’s Britain most people are too tired, overworked and stressed to dedicate a lot of time to politics and political discussion. That’s why McDonnell argued for the working week to be reduced to four days with no reduction in pay. Which of course gave billionaires all the more reason to put their weight against Labour.
The gridlock between socialist policies on the one hand and the system of representative democracy, capitalism, xenophobia and the nation-state on the other, is clear. Corbyn’s electoral project seemed for a long time to have potential, but the Liberal ‘democratic’ system won out. When we understand those forces that any social democrat has to go up against, it becomes clear that electoral victory is almost impossible.
There are of course some countries where welfare states have been successfully established in the past – my native country Sweden being one example. But the Nordic welfare states, like Britain’s NHS, were established in the wake of the Russian Revolution as soldiers returned home from the wars and European elites were terrified of a workers’ uprising at home. Today we don’t have such a threat, so we need to find other ways of creating the justice we need.
So what should we do?
I’m not saying we should all drop electoral politics and let the Tories have free reign. But elections can only be a very small part of our strategy. To have a serious chance at turning Britain into a just and humane society, we need to build those capacities and practices that we want to see ourselves. Create organisations where everyone can participate in decision-making together – or at least support and become members of ones that already exist, whether co-ops or community interest companies or some other form. (If you’re in London then the Common House, which I’m involved in running, is a nice hub to find an organisation to join if you don’t know where to start.) Join the union and organise with your co-workers for shorter working hours and better pay. Create new forms of education – which on a smaller scale might take the form of teach-ins and summer schools, and on a larger scale new schools or colleges build on egalitarian principles. Pool our resources to share them with those who are experiencing times of hardship, through organising community meals, collective childcare, car sharing. Save our money in Rootstock or Triodos rather than big profit-driven corporate banks. Revive and support alternative media outlets like Indymedia, Novara and Open Democracy. Stop buying energy from the Big Six and develop a solar panel project for you neighbourhood together with community energy organisations like Repowering London instead.
While it might have been less effort to just elect somebody else to sort all of this out, it’s turned out not to be working that way. Everyone can’t do every single one of these things of course, but unless we start divvying up these tasks between us and getting on with it, we are stuck on a rainy shitty island with Boris Johnson as our dad.